By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – When hundreds of Hasidic Jews crowded Brooklyn sidewalks Tuesday night for the funeral of a local rabbi, New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio was outraged at the violation of city social-distancing rules due to coronavirus.

“This is by far the largest community, the largest gathering in any community of New York City of any kind that I had heard of or seen directly or on video since the beginning of this crisis and it’s just not allowable,” he fumed.

That scene, and a Worcester pastor’s defiance of Governor Charlie Baker’s ban on events that draw ten or more people, are just the latest flash-points in the growing push back against curbs on religious gatherings.

Hasidic Jews crowd Brooklyn sidewalks for rabbi’s funeral (CBS)

In Kansas, where large religious gatherings have been blamed for infections and deaths, a right-wing advocacy group successfully sued the state to relax its ban on crowded church services.

“The governor’s order,” said Tyson Langhofer of the Alliance for Defending Freedom, “punishes churches who are looking for a safe, responsible way to gather for worship.”

And in neighboring Nebraska, the governor is eager to sidestep church-service shutdowns. Instead, says Gov. Pete Ricketts, “there’ll be rules about how you would set up, for example, a communion line. There’ll be rules all about sanitizing the pews and everything between services.”

But at a mosque in Indianapolis, they’re going out of their way to comply with the public-safety crackdown, despite the interference with Ramadan observances.

“We had never stopped praying together, we have never stopped eating Iftar together, we have never stopped Eid,” says Imam Ahmed Alamine of the Masjid Al-Fajr Islamic Center. “But we believe this is a test from God and we need to be up to the test and pass it.”

This is a very tough issue because religious freedom is so basic to the American experience. That Worcester pastor makes a persuasive point when he wonders how liquor stores and garden centers are OK for crowds while churches are not. But the government also has a strong case that there’s a “compelling interest” at stake here – the mortal threat to churchgoers and others in the community.

The unprecedented suspension of personal freedoms – however temporary and seemingly justified by the pandemic’s carnage – was bound to prompt this kind of legal battle. It feeds long-held suspicion among many Americans about expansive government power. Religious-practice issues have been a particular staple of the right for decades. And given how political the battle over how and when to reopen normal life is becoming, the temptation to exploit them will surely prove irresistible.

After all, how many beleaguered politicians defending onerous shutdown policies want any part of the optics of this fight, no matter how sound their legal and medical reasoning?

Jon Keller

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